Ah, the glory days, when “democracy” was left to a handful of old white guys in a backroom who played golf together. We’ve yet to read Jonathan Rauch’s new book, but D.J. Tice’s May 18 commentary (“In praise of the political machine”) touting its premise — that politics worked better when it was the exclusive province of “backroom power brokers” — strikes us as strangely misguided.
When you get right down to it, political decisionmaking was much simpler before the 15th and 19th Amendments, too. Expanding suffrage to include people of color and women made everything so complicated. Politics ran more smoothly and “effectively” back before those annoying 19th-century reformers had to start fixing things.
As a baby boomer and a millennial, respectively, we agree that our democracy is in rough shape. But the notion that “excessive reform” is to blame strikes us as comically off-base. We’re especially confused by the implication that those who support campaign-finance reform are fundamentally responsible for the existence of super PACs. Call us naive for largely attributing that modern political phenomenon to a small court decision known among both the backroom power brokers and plebeians among us as Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. Our belief is that attempts at campaign-finance reform thus far have been frustratingly limited and incomplete. Not “excessive.”
Let’s consider the possibility that the choice between fat-cat party bosses and super PACs (call it the choice between machines and “shadow machines”) is a false one. Perhaps we’ve simply got more work to do. More reform — genuine, structural reform — to undertake.
We contend that an important structural reform that strikes at the heart of Tice’s lamented gridlock is ranked-choice voting. We agree wholeheartedly that the primaries are polarizing and that they foster rigidity and extremism. Conversely, ranked-choice voting eliminates primaries and opens the political “winnowing” process up to a much larger, more diverse swath of the electorate. It also cultivates the old-fashioned civility, consensus-building, collegiality and statesmanship whose virtual disappearance Tice mourns. Ranked-choice voting requires candidates to reach beyond the small strident “base,” find common ground with opponents and their first-choice backers, and earn the support of a broad majority. It’s another way, a more transparent one, to promote political compromise. One that’s preferable, we think, to behind-the-scenes horse-trading among party bosses who “dispense rewards and impose punishments” for reasons that have everything to do with power for power’s sake, and nothing to do with good policymaking.
Democracy is a work in progress, and an inherently messy one. While we can all agree that dysfunction and gridlock are problematic, making things run smoothly isn’t the only goal. If expediency and conflict avoidance are paramount, dictatorship makes the most sense of all. But we’re not interested in reverting to the golden age of partisan hackdom. Call us idealists (it’s OK, Mr. Tice; we don’t mind!), but we believe in openness and inclusivity. And in the progress that smart, principled reform can bring.
Jim Watkins is co-founder of Sociable Cider Werks and a member of the FairVote Minnesota Board. Karla Ekdahl is a community leader in Minneapolis.